Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus
(c. 480-c. 525)
   Roman senator and noble, whose family boasted an emperor in its lineage and strong Christian credentials, Boethius was one of the last great philosophers of antiquity. Like most Romans of his class, he also served in government, in his case as advisor of the great Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric. A talented philosopher, theologian, and orator, Boethius is best known for his Consolation of Philosophy (De consolatione philosophiae), which he wrote while in prison awaiting his execution at the order of Theodoric. Despite this tragic ending, Boethius's memory lived on long after his death, and his greatest work influenced many, including the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great, who translated it.
   Like many traditional Romans, Boethius enjoyed a good education and was set on the path to holding public office. His later writings suggest that he was a particularly good student, who may have traveled to the great schools at Athens and Alexandria to study for a time, and his talents as an orator stood him in good stead in his political career. His father had served as consul, but had died in 487 while Boethius was quite young. The early death of his father, however, had one beneficial result - the important Christian senator Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus assumed Boethius's father's place and raised and educated him. His family background and education prepared him for a career in public service, which he accepted, as he notes in the Consolation, in accordance with Plato's endorsement of philosophers serving in government. In 510, he was made consul, and in 522 his two sons were elevated to the consulship, a great honor that suggests Boethius held favor with the imperial government in Constantinople. He was also highly favored by the Ostrogothic king in Italy, Theodoric, who made Boethius his Master of Offices (magister officiorum) in 522.
   Boethius's career in public service and his relationship with Theodoric are complex, celebrated, and tragic. His focus was plainly on serving the interests of Italy and its people, and at one point he helped resolve an economic crisis in southern Italy. He was also willing to work with the Arian Theodoric. Although an Arian ruler of a Catholic population, Theodoric was generally a wise and tolerant king, with whom educated and public-minded senators like Boethius could work. Indeed, Theodoric often called Boethius to his service, and not only in 522 when he was made chief of staff. Theodoric had often requested Boethius to employ his great mathematical and mechanical talents to create objects that the king could use in diplomacy as gifts. At the same time, there is evidence that Boethius was interested in bridging the gap between the eastern and western parts of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages his intellectual work remained an important conduit of the teachings of Plato and, to a lesser extent, Aristotle, to the Latin West. The theological treatises he wrote in the 510s were designed to reconcile Eastern and Western theology - an attempt, perhaps, to draw Constantinople and Italy closer together at a time when Theodoric's policy was to keep the two far apart. Indeed, Boethius's efforts were appreciated by the imperial government at Constantinople, which rewarded him and his sons with the consulship. Clearly, Boethius was involved in a complex web of competing political and religious interests.
   His political involvement came to a bad end not long after his promotion to Master of the Offices. The aging Theodoric faced serious difficulties in Italy in his last years, which included tensions at his own court over relations with Constantinople, an aggressive and ambitious emperor in Constantinople, and an uncertain succession because of the death of one son-in-law and the conversion to Catholicism of the other. In the early 520s, Theodoric cracked down hard on anti-Semitic rioters and ordered all Romans disarmed. In 522, he learned of a conspiracy headed by the leading senator, Albinus, who was implicated in corresponding with Constantinople against Theodoric. The king quickly ordered Albinus arrested, and Boethius came to his fellow senator's defense. Despite his good service to Theodoric, Boethius had also made enemies of the king's advisors for his promotion of Catholic orthodoxy against Arianism and for exposing corruption in the king's administration.
   Standing before the king, Boethius declared "If Albinus is guilty, then so am I, and so is the whole senate" (Wolfram 1997, 224). Although modern scholarship remains divided on whether Boethius was involved in the conspiracy or not, Theodoric had Boethius arrested. Several senators, in need of money, brought evidence against Boethius, who was found guilty of witchcraft and treason. He was imprisoned in Pavia where he wrote his masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy, and suffered a gruesome execution, most likely after torture, probably in 525.
   Revered as a martyr throughout the Middle Ages because of his brutal execution by Theodoric, Boethius is best known for his theological work and the Consolation. His earlier treatises included works on mathematics and music, which preserved elements of earlier Greek works on the subjects. Boethius also translated Aristotle's works on logic, and his theological treatises were heavily influenced by Neoplatonic thought. His Consolation of Philosophy, which some interpret as a Christian philosophical work and others do not, was written as a dialogue between Boethius himself depicted as rebelling against his unjust fate and Lady Philosophy; it reflects on the great questions of human happiness and suffering, and vindicates divine providence and human freedom. It may have been an effort by Boethius to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christian theology, and whatever the intent it was an important source for the preservation of Greek thought for medieval Latin thinkers.
   See also
 ♦ Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Richard Green. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1962.
 ♦ Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.
 ♦ Gibson, Margaret, ed. Boethius: His Life, Thought, and Influence. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.
 ♦ Laistner, Max L. W. Thought and Letters in Western Europe, a.d. 500-900. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Los Angelos and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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